Virgin on Business: Taking the Leap

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Don’t just sit there. Go entrepreneur something.

You heard me. Your economy is depending on you. Your livelihood and your career are depending upon you.

What, you thought you might find a modestly prosperous company in a decently growing industry and settle into a job with reasonable prospects for upward mobility, then job hop two or three times at the most, and cruise your way to a comfortable life, showing up for work each day, and letting someone else worry about the paperwork and where the money is coming from?

Ha! There are no such jobs like that anymore, so we’re told. Your ability to pay for food, clothing and shelter for 45 years can no more rely on a big employer than a regional or national economy can count on a portfolio of big legacy employers to sustain it.

All it takes is one technological innovation that you don’t have, the rise of a competitive threat, a round of bad management, a recession — factors you have no influence over — and poof! There goes your job, your career, your economy.

The only way to have some control over your job and career is to make them. That won’t eliminate the risks, but at least the decisions made to counter or avoid those risks will be yours, not someone else’s.

Thus, the flurry of interest nationwide in entrepreneurship. Business schools are ripping up their curricula to teach entrepreneurship the way they once taught the quality movement or lean. Cities, regions and states are throwing all the organizational and financial resources they can — incubators, investment funds, incentives — at the issue in the hope of growing a culture of entrepreneurship somewhat like that of Seattle and the Northwest.

Some of this activity sounds ominously reminiscent of the high-tech wave that swept the country in the 1980s, when building an industrial park with “tech” somewhere in the name was sufficient to replicate Research Triangle Park or Silicon Valley.

Dumping buckets of water and a truckload of fertilizer on some dirt with the expectation something will grow will produce similarly disappointing results if there are no seeds to take root. Many fields around the country are, entrepreneurially speaking, barren. So reliant have many regions become on these big legacy companies that they’ve forgotten how to create new ones (at least the kinds of companies that can grow into sizable ventures).

Can you teach, create or impose entrepreneurialism on places that don’t have it or lost it years ago, as regions like the Midwest did? That’s the great experiment now being launched.

The Midwest was once the heartland of entrepreneurial activity. Farming, after all, is about as entrepreneurial a venture as there is. The auto companies that built the Midwest’s industrial base, the breweries that quenched its thirst, started as entrepreneurial ventures. A couple of Midwest bicycle mechanics launched the aviation business.

This great experiment will be watched with interest, and perhaps a bit of puzzlement, here in the Northwest, which has depended heavily on commercial risk takers from the moment the first settlers set foot on its drizzly shores and started in on the fish and the timber. The mainstays of the regional economy over the decades started, by and large, as entrepreneurial ventures. By now, the drive to run one’s own company and to be one’s own boss are assumed and celebrated as being foundations to this area’s economic culture as much as planes, coffee, software and online retailing (all entrepreneurial ventures grown great).

The celebration is merited. The assumption, however, is not. As the Midwest experience demonstrates, a startup mindset can be lost over time. The Northwest’s entrepreneurial climate has been long running, but it’s not necessarily permanent.

There are signs of recognition that even our entrepreneurial culture has to be repeatedly nurtured and encouraged, and not just in the supposed local hotbeds of startups. The Tacoma Entrepreneur Network introduces college students to the idea of do-it-yourself business life. The Tri-Cities had its first startup weekend this year.

Like startups themselves, some of these efforts at entrepreneurialism will thrive while others will wither away. But the very act of trying, in both cases, is as important as the success-failure ratio. If you’re not doing any thinking about where tomorrow’s jobs, companies and industries are coming from, it is highly unlikely that you’ll wind up actually creating them.

BILL VIRGIN is founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and

Pacific Northwest Rail News.

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